July 23, 2022 

‘An incredible ride’: Inside Sue Bird’s likely final game against Diana Taurasi

With Briann January also bidding farewell to Phoenix and Tina Charles playing against the team she left midseason, it was a night of storylines

PHOENIX – After the gates opened Friday night, over 14,000 fans roared into the Footprint Center. The metal stairs echoed with stomps as people weaved through the crowd. As the lights glared and cameras raised, the action started. It was likely Seattle Storm legend Sue Bird‘s last ride in Phoenix — barring an improbable playoff matchup — and she and Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury took center stage for an interview before their last time competing against each other.

But let’s rewind to the day prior. Inside the Mercury’s practice facility on Thursday, two decades of memories resonated with Taurasi. The constant reminder of how basketball brought Bird and Taurasi together, starting at UConn and continuing on opposing WNBA teams and with Team USA, was bittersweet for the 10-time WNBA All-Star.

“Looking back on it, it’s been incredible to be in a job with your best friend for 20 years,” Taurasi earnestly told reporters. “You don’t get to do that. Most people don’t get to do that in any job, let alone basketball. So it’s been an incredible journey.”

As Taurasi wrapped up, teammate Reshanda Gray joined the media members and introduced herself jokingly as “Reshanda Gray with the Phoenix Mercury.” Gray, who has played for both Seattle and Phoenix this season, hit a sweet spot by asking Taurasi for her favorite memory of Bird.

“There was one game. It was against Oklahoma, national championship game in San Antonio [in 2002], and I was just having the worst game of my life. And it was very subtle. Sue just came over and gave me a pat on the back. She goes, ‘You got this for us.’ And I think a minute later, I scored … the basket that kind of sealed the game. … That’s the thing that Sue does that doesn’t show up in the box score that makes teams great, the ability for her to say one thing and get everyone on track. And that’s the one thing that I’ve learned from her more than anything,” Taurasi said.

Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi (left) and Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird (center) sit for an interview with Phoenix play-by-play announcer Cindy Brunson for Bird’s likely last game in Phoenix on July 22, 2022. (Photo credit: Hayden Cilley)

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Tina Charles returns to Phoenix

Fast forward to Friday. Bird and Taurasi were warming up on their respective sides as another big story came into view: the return of Tina Charles. Charles and the Mercury agreed to a buyout of her contract in June, at a time when the Mercury were 6-12 and riding a three-game losing streak. She signed with the Storm days later, and this was her first game back in the Footprint Center as a visiting player.

With Bird playing her final game in Phoenix, the return of Charles seemed relatively under the radar. But Taurasi spoke about playing against her former teammate after Thursday’s practice:

“I have tremendous respect for Tina. I’ve known [her] for a long, long time. And sometimes we make decisions in life that you have to make, and there are personal choices that you make. All we can do is just move forward with the team we have. And we’re really happy with where we’re at as a team going forward. So I’ll dap her up and say hi, like I always do.”

Mercury head coach Vanessa Nygaard took a different approach when discussing Charles’ return to the valley by suggesting several storylines to watch. “I think there’s a lot of stories in this game,” she said. “Obviously, Sue’s last regular-season game here in the valley is a huge story, especially with her longstanding great relationship with Dee. Also, we have Briann January, one of the best players in the history of Arizona State, in my mind, who is also retiring this year. So she’s coming back to the valley here for [her last] regular-season game. And then we have Tina as well. So there’s a lot of stories.”

Charles garnered a mixed reaction from the crowd while warming up. There were some cheers (mostly from Seattle fans who made the trip), some boos, a little in between. But during the starting lineup introductions, Charles received a thunderous boo from the pro-Mercury crowd, and that continued throughout the game. In the first quarter, Charles fouled Mercury guard Skylar Diggins-Smith on a drive to the basket, and when it was upgraded to a flagrant one foul, cheers rang out around the arena.

An in-state legend gets her flowers

The frosty reception for Charles contrasted with the crowd’s reaction to Storm guard Briann January. The Phoenix faithful recognized January as one the greatest women’s basketball players in Arizona State history. She was drafted sixth overall by the Indiana Fever in 2009, won a WNBA title with Indiana in 2012 and made her first all-star game in 2014. She also played for the Mercury in 2018 and 2019.

When asked about Phoenix, January had nothing but love for her alma mater. “This is home,” January said. “I’m blessed to have Coach Charli [Turner Thorne] because [Arizona State] gave me the tools to be a great player.”

The Mercury honored January with a framed Sun Devil jersey as well as a No. 12 Mercury jersey. General manager Jim Pitman and January applauded, as did the crowd.

Bird’s likely farewell did not disappoint

Moments later, fans put the rivalry aside and met Bird with roaring applause. She was honored with a pair of custom Air Jordans in Seattle colors. She, Taurasi, Pitman and Mercury president Vince Kozar had all smiles for what was likely Bird’s final game in the valley.

It was certainly a battle between two of the best. Taurasi had 28 points, seven rebounds and seven assists, while Bird had two points, five assists and two rebounds. As the final buzzer sounded, they embraced and went off to the locker rooms. Taurasi walked into the press conference room smiling with Bird. With every seat filled, the cameras flashed and questions got underway. The majority of the questions involved the last dance with the two standouts. Bird discussed the emotions of the week leading up to this game:

“It’s tricky. There’s moments where the emotion does get to me, but you’re also trying to play a basketball game. You’re also trying to compete in a season, you’re trying to peak at the right time and get to the playoffs and all those things. So for me, personally, I just, I really have to monitor that and control that a little bit and find that balance of enjoying these moments. They are special, right? But also not letting it overcome me in a way that’s going to take me out of the game.”

Taurasi smiled and added, “It’s exciting to start a new chapter off the court with our families and make other memories in other ways. The basketball part will always be there. That’s the one thing that we’ve dedicated our whole lives to. So those memories, they stay close to my heart. It’s been an incredible ride and, you know, in any profession, when you get to do something with your best friend for 20 years … life is good.”

Written by Hayden Cilley

Hayden Cilley covers the Phoenix Mercury for The Next. He is currently pursuing a bachelors degree in Sports Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.

1 Comment

  1. Anicia Merkle on August 1, 2022 at 9:37 pm

    What an insightful and well written article.

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